It was during extra hours in the school library, just before our winter vacation, that I noticed a boy who spent even more time in there than I did, peeking over the top of his book at me. His hair was a dark rust color. He was not very tall and more than a little bit scrawny. It was impossible to avoid his bulbous nose of no definable shape. Unflattering black-rimmed glasses rested on it in a way that resembled a pair of those gag glasses, but without the big bushy eyebrows. Weird lips that twisted slightly in opposite directions looked paper thin underneath the bespectacled rutabaga. Barely visible freckles dotting his nose and cheeks were the only thing cute about him.
I made repeated checks of my peripheral vision to verify that he was in fact peeking at me, and caught him several times ducking down behind his book again when I would casually look over his way. He was a year ahead of me and he had been a piece of furniture in the library, almost a part of its foundation, since I first went in there on a break to start my inaugural submission for our school paper. I wondered how much of that time had elapsed before he’d devolved into this form of human prairie dog.
I’d never noticed it before, but my head had been so full of other things, there were times I could have missed a whole colony of prairie dogs. I found the image of a library full of boys ducking down behind books whichever direction I turned to be quite amusing. It was quickly displaced by the unpleasant reminder that this was only the second boy in my whole life who had showed an interest in me that also involved recognizing me as a member of the opposite sex.
I made a point of saying hi to him on the last day before school let out for Christmas, just to see what his reaction would be. I went to the card catalog and pretended to look through a couple of the drawers and then shot a glance straight at him as if that were the direction in which my book was to be found. His head ducked down as usual, but I had looked over fast enough to make sure I convinced him he’d been caught. I checked the card again for no DDC number in particular, shut the drawer and headed over to the shelves next to where he sat.
He gave me one more timid peek and then sunk down in his chair when he saw me approaching. Pretending not to notice, I slowed deliberately when I got close. I scanned the numbers on the books for whichever one was going to turn out to be right in front of him. I turned my back to him when I got there and applied Jessi’s Dance Rule #1, bending forward a little and picking out a science fiction novel with some interesting art on the cover. Then I deliberately shifted my weight from one leg to the other as I read the synopsis and thumbed through a couple of pages, before deciding I didn’t care for it after all and bent to put it back again. I don’t know what inclined me to tease him that way.
I turned around quickly and paused to stare at him, trying to look startled by his presence as if realizing for the first time he wasn’t a statue. He looked up nervously from his book without moving his head, and I smiled and said hi. He didn’t look quite as whimsical up close, but he was a pretty funny looking boy, a comedic string bean clown slouched down in his chair peeking over the top of his gag glasses. I felt sorry for him.
He obviously thought I was cute, or at least the cutest thing in his little world of bookshelves, and I just wanted to reach out and honk his nose. I must have overdone it with my teasing because when he tried to return my greeting, it sounded more like air escaping from a leaky balloon. It was hard not to laugh. My eyebrows nudged upward in my mirth, but I managed to retain my polite smile. I cocked my head slightly to one side and walked back to my seat, never looking back at him again.
After vacation, I noticed my friend the Jack-in-the-box was in the school library every single day I was in there. I didn’t pay him any attention, but I decided it was time for some more fun. Jessi wasn’t much for the library, except in cases of extreme inclement weather, but I talked her into a special trip with me and we went in together without any books. We walked straight over toward Peeping Tom, each picked out a book from the shelf, and sat down opposite him at his table with the books open in front of our faces. I was already giggling.
There was no one in the library but us three and the student assistant librarian. Our assault on his position couldn’t have been any more blatant. He stayed quiet. I leaned forward and peeked over the top of my book at him and waited for him to look up. I ducked down immediately when he did. Then Jessi did the same thing. I heard him slap his book down on the table, and I peeked up over the top of mine again and stared at him.
“I’m Annie,” I said with a little flip of my head. “This is Jessi.” My mouth was still hidden behind my book for the introduction.
“Hi,” he returned meekly, obviously overwhelmed.
Jessi and I put our books down. He looked nervously back and forth between us.
“My name’s Lyndell,” he suddenly realized.
I smiled. “Do you like science fiction, Lyndell?”
“How did you know?” He asked, confused.
“Um, you’re sitting next to the sci-fi section?” Jessi pointed out with a snicker.
Lyndell looked embarrassed.
“As a science fiction fan, you’ll be pleased to find out we’re alien beings,” I told him. “We’re from the planet Female. We’ve been sent to Earth to observe the behavioral patterns of the rare Barkless Prairie Dog, found only in school li-prairies.”
Jessi was the one giggling now. I could see Lyndell’s cheeks get red. I winked at her, her cue, and we both got up and sat down on either side of him. I pulled a notepad out of my purse along with a pen, and began pretending to write notes as I verbalized them.
“When surrounded by Females, the Barkless Prairie Dog becomes timid and develops a peculiar pallor…”
Lyndell bristled as I leaned forward and sniffed twice.
“…and a musky odor. He becomes fiercely protective when confronted in his hole.”
Jessi reached over and pinched his ribs, shaking her head at me with a sad expression.
“The species is bony, almost devoid of flesh, especially rib meat. They are not recommended for Female consumption.”
Lyndell had enough. “You’re very funny,” he sulked, and he got up in a huff and left the library.
We were laughing too hard to stop him, but the following day at lunch, I went in by myself and sat next to him. He continued to read, or maybe only pretended to. I wasn’t about to apologize. He had earned it with all his unsolicited eyeballing. I leaned forward on the table with my head turned toward him resting on my arms and waited long enough to make sure he had a chance to acclimate to my presence.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you like Females?” I finally asked.
His eyes remained glued to the pages of his book.
“That’s funny. You’d never know it the way you keep peeking at me. Maybe you mistook me for something else.”
“Maybe I mistook you for one from this planet,” he said curtly.
I laughed. “You like to read a lot.”
He was quiet again, so I tried a different approach. “I noticed you were always alone, Lyndell. I was only trying to give you someone to talk to.”
“I do just fine when I’m alone,” he scowled.
“You ever heard the expression ‘rooster in a henhouse’?” I gave myself a mental mouthwash of soap as I said it.
It drew a slight nod.
“You should come visit planet Female with me one of these days. You might think it was fun.”
“No thanks.” He tried to sound insulted. “Hanging around with a bunch of girls poking fun at me doesn’t sound like it’s all that great.”
“It’s gotta be more fun than sitting alone in here while we’re out poking fun at you anyway.”
He finally looked away from his book, but not directly at me. “I accept your apology.”
I snorted indignantly. Then I sat up, put my arm around him and whispered in his ear. “I ain’t apologizing to anyone, especially not you Mr. Peek-a-boo. And I ain’t ever going to stop teasing you. If you learn not to take it so serious and you like me okay anyway, we can be friends.”
As I walked away, I realized I had pushed my chest up against him when I did it and I remembered what Jessi had said before the dance. His eyes were probably glued to my backside the whole way. I spared him the look around to find out.
It rained a lot that year. Between the constant thunder showers we were always thankful weren’t hurricanes and working diligently at writing for a while, I spent more and more time in the library. Lyndell wasn’t won over by a couple of brief visits to his table. He didn’t seem to have any friends at all, probably a combination of being so goofy-looking and spending all his time wading up to his eyeballs in verbiage. I didn’t have any trouble relating to either of those feelings. I had spent years of my life with people actually mistaking me for a boy, a fate that puberty failed to rescue me from, and I probably spent more time writing than Lyndell did reading.
Certain that at least we shared common plights, I began to smile and wave at him now and then when I caught his eye. I still wouldn’t sit with him because I have a phobia of anyone reading my unfinished writing. He barely acknowledged my greetings. I worried that I may have done irreparable damage with the teasing I had once thought was so clever. I had almost reached the point of guilt where I was convinced I did owe him an apology when Valentine’s Day came and brought Lyndell, somewhat sheepishly, over to my table for the first time.
He stood there for a minute without saying anything and then produced a card in an envelope and a small box of candies. He pushed them in front of me on the table. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I opened the card. He had managed to find one with a little cartoon prairie dog on it that said, “It’s all over town. You’re my Valentine.” I turned it over and the words he had written there, now taped to one of Sarah’s pages, still break my heart whenever I read them.
“The Barkless Prairie Dog doesn’t bark, but he wags his tail whenever he sees Annie from Female.”
I was a mess.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
I couldn’t tell him I was cursing God inside for making such a homely-looking boy so sweet, or that I was suddenly sorry for being so mean to him. I could only tell him that was the nicest Valentine’s Day card I ever got and I had nothing to give him in return. He didn’t need to know it was the only Valentine’s Day card I’d received since the last time they gave us lists to fill back in second grade.
I hopped up out of my chair and hugged him. I had never cried with makeup on before. I didn’t realize it was going to run and I got mascara all over his shirt. I brushed at it apologetically, and then laughed through the tears.
“Well, there! I gave you something after all!”
© 2012 Anne Schilde